Written by: Aine Givens
University endowments are funds that have been donated to academic institutions, either by an individual or organizations. They are primarily used to offset operating and administrative costs, fund scholarships and professorships, and ensure the operational stability and longevity of the institution. While Harvard University has the largest university endowment in the country, Harvard’s grew at a slower rate than most of its Ivy League peers.
The largest 1% of university endowments grew from an average of $2 billion to $20 billion between 1980 and 2016, after adjusting for inflation, according to a Washington Post column authored by Charlie Eaton, a University of California, Merced sociology professor. In his book “Bankers in the Ivory Tower: The Troubling Rise of Financiers in U.S. Higher Education,” Eaton writes that elite universities invest large amounts in private equity and hedge funds headed by their alumni.
EDsmart examined data from the U.S. Department of Education to find how much endowments at Ivy League universities have grown over two decades between 2000 and 2020, the latest data available. Universities are ranked by the percentage of increase.
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#8. Cornell University
– Location: Ithaca, New York
– Year founded: 1865
– 2020 endowment: $6.9B
– Growth since 2000: 100.3%
A privately endowed university, Cornell University is also the federal land-grant institution of New York. Its original mission under the Morrill Act of 1862 was to teach agriculture, military tactics, the mechanic arts, and classical studies so that working-class students could receive a liberal arts and practical education.
Cornell established the first four-year schools for hotel administration and industrial and labor relations, awarded the country’s first degree in veterinary medicine, and was the first to offer a degree in American studies.
The university boasts at least 50 Nobel laureates affiliated with the school, either as faculty or alumni. Among Cornell’s famous former students are Superman actor Christopher Reeve; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general; and the writers E.B. White and Kurt Vonnegut. One of its graduates has earned the nickname the “James Bond of Philanthropy:” Charles Feeney of the class of 1956, had given his alma mater $1 billion in funds as of December 2020, according to the Cornell Daily Sun. Feeney, who co-founded Duty-Free Shoppers, made many of his donations anonymously.
#7. Harvard University
– Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
– Year founded: 1636
– 2020 endowment: $41.9B
– Growth since 2000: 122.3%
Harvard was the first college founded in the American colonies when the “Great and General Court of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England” approved £400 for its establishment. Its namesake was John Harvard, who received his M.A. from Cambridge University in England and who later willed his library of 400 books and half his estate to the college. Increase Mather, a Puritan minister who was involved in the Salem Witch Trials and who served as president of Harvard College, was awarded the school’s first Doctor of Divinity degree in 1692.
Other illustrious alumni include former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who were all Harvard Law students. Former Vice President Al Gore was a Harvard undergraduate and former President George W. Bush earned his MBA at Harvard Business School. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates both famously dropped out.
Among the well-known donors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the estate of David E. Rockefeller, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative from pediatrician Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. Entrepreneur Leonard Blavatnik, a Harvard Business School graduate, has committed $200 million to Harvard Medical School.
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#6. Dartmouth College
– Location: Hanover, New Hampshire
– Year founded: 1769
– 2020 endowment: $6.0B
– Growth since 2000: 139.9%
Dartmouth College was established to educate Native Americans, English youth, and others, though in its first 200 years, it did not meet that first commitment. Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan tribe and one of the first students of the college’s founder, Congregational minister Eleazar Wheelock, helped to raise the money for the school.
In 1970, Dartmouth created one of the country’s first Native American programs. New Hampshire holds the country’s first presidential primary, and for more than 25 years, Dartmouth has hosted presidential debates. Among its most influential alumni are the orator Daniel Webster, children’s book author Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss), poet Robert Frost, former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and Michael Arad, an architect who designed the World Trade Center Memorial.
In 2022, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business announced a $52.1 million pledge from an anonymous donor, the largest ever received.
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#5. Columbia University
– Location: New York, New York
– Year founded: 1754
– 2020 endowment: $11.3B
– Growth since 2000: 164.0%
Columbia University was originally named King’s College, founded by a royal charter of King George II of England. After closing in 1776, it reopened in 1784 as Columbia. Among the earliest students were John Jay, the country’s first chief justice; Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary; and Gouverneur Morris, the author of the final draft of the U.S. Constitution.
Other famous Columbia alumni include former President Barack Obama, actor Brian Dennehy, musician Art Garfunkel, New York Yankees ironman Lou Gehrig, and Olympic swimmer Katie Meili. Students shut down the campus during protests against the Vietnam War in 1968. In 2022, Columbia’s Barnard College received its largest donation of $55 million from the former CEO of Merck, P. Roy Vagelos, and his wife, Diana.
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#4. Princeton University
– Location: Princeton, New Jersey
– Year founded: 1746
– 2020 endowment: $25.9B
– Growth since 2000: 208.9%
The university was founded by the Presbyterian Synod as the College of New Jersey in Elizabeth and moved twice before it was deeded 10 acres in Princeton. A president of the college, John Witherspoon, signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1783, the Continental Congress met in one of the college’s buildings, Nassau Hall, which served as the temporary U.S. Capitol.
Albert Einstein had his office on the campus as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, though it had no formal ties to the university. Like other Ivy League institutions, Princeton’s roster of notable alumni is impressive and includes former President Woodrow Wilson, actors Jimmy Stewart and Brooke Shields, former first lady Michelle Obama, Lisa Najeeb Halaby (the former Queen Noor of Jordan), consumer activist Ralph Nader, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
In 2015, musicologist and philanthropist William H. Scheide donated nearly $300 million worth of rare books and manuscripts to the school, including the first six printed editions of the Bible, a handwritten music sketchbook from Beethoven, and the original printing of the Declaration of Independence, CNBC reported.
#3. Brown University
– Location: Providence, Rhode Island
– Year founded: 1764
– 2020 endowment: $4.4B
– Growth since 2000: 209.1%
The university’s founding can be traced to 1762 when a group of Baptist leaders meeting in Philadelphia settled on establishing a Baptist university in New England and chose Rhode Island, which was without a college. Despite those origins, the charter approved by the state two years later noted that it would be a liberal institution without religious tests. The Brown family, which funded its creation in Providence, gave the college its name.
Siblings and alumni Aysha and Omar Shoman—whose grandfather dropped out of school at age 6 and left Palestine for New York City—donated $25 million in 2022 for international undergraduates. Other notable alumni include John F. Kennedy Jr., CNN founder Ted Turner, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley.
#2. Yale University
– Location: New Haven, Connecticut
– Year founded: 1701
– 2020 endowment: $31.2B
– Growth since 2000: 209.4%
Clergymen began work on creating a college in the European liberal tradition in the 1640s. Its charter came from the Connecticut legislature in 1701, and it became Yale College in 1718—named after a Welsh merchant, Elihu Yale, who sold nine bales of goods for its benefit and donated 417 books and a portrait of King George I. The first Yale bulldog, the school’s mascot, dates from 1889, when student Andrew B. Graves bought him from a New Haven blacksmith for $5.
Among Yale’s famous alumni are former presidents William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush; architect Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; actors Lupita Nyong’o and Meryl Streep, who attended Yale’s drama school; and former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, graduates of the law school. A $150 million gift from the David Geffen Foundation in 2021 allowed the drama school to waive all tuition.
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#1. University of Pennsylvania
– Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
– Year founded: 1749
– 2020 endowment: $14.9B
– Growth since 2000: 364.8%
The origins of the University of Pennsylvania lie in a 1740 plan for a Philadelphia charity school, but the building languished for a decade when it proved too expensive to build. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin led the organization of a school based on his publication, “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth,” and a group bought the building. Franklin was the school’s president until 1755.
Former President Donald Trump was a student at Penn, as were musician John Legend, billionaire Warren Buffet, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. In 2021, the university received an anonymous gift of $5 million in bitcoin, the largest cryptocurrency donation it had received.